Page 18 of Specials (Uglies 3)

"I know that Fausto needs you, Shay. I'm not asking you to stay with me." She spread her hands.

"One of us has to go ahead, and the other stay with the Crims. It's the only way."


Shay made another hissing sound and stalked away to the river's edge. She yanked a flat stone from the mud and hoisted it, ready to throw it out across the water.

"Shay-la, they might see," Tally whispered. Shay paused, her arm still cocked. "Look, I'm sorry about this, but I'm not being totally random, am I?"

Shay's response was to stare at the stone for a moment, then drop it back into the mud and draw her knife. She began to roll up the arm of her sneak suit.

Tally turned away, hoping that once her mind was clear, Shay would understand.

She watched the runaway camp, where everyone was eating carefully, apparently having realized that self-heating meals could burn their tongues. That was the first lesson everyone got out in the wild: Nothing could be trusted, not even your own dinner. It wasn't like the city, where every sharp corner had been rounded off, every balcony equipped with a resistance field in case you fell, and where the food never came boiling hot.

She couldn't leave Zane out here alone, even if staying with him made Shay hate her.

A moment later, Tally heard Shay standing up, and turned to face her. Her arm was bleeding, her flash tattoos in dizzying motion, and as she approached, Tally saw the telltale sharpness of her eyes.

"All right. We split up," she said. Tally tried to smile, but Shay shook her head. "Don't you dare get happy about this, Tally-wa. I thought making you into a Special would change you. I thought if you could see the world clearly, you'd think about yourself a little less. It wouldn't just be you and your latest boyfriend; I thought you might let something else matter every once in a while."

"I care about the Cutters, Shay, honest. I care about you."

"You did until Zane reappeared. Now, nothing else matters." She shook her head in disgust.

"And I've been trying so hard to please you, to make this work for you. But it's pointless."

Tally swallowed. "But we have to split up - it's the only safe way to make sure the finder works."

"I know that, Tally-wa. I can see your logic." Shay looked at the runaways, disgust all over her wildly spinning face. "But answer me this: Did you think it all through and then realize we should split up?

Or had you already decided to stick with Zane, no matter what?" Tally opened her mouth, then closed it.

"Don't bother lying, Tally-wa. We both know the answer." Shay snorted, turned away, and snapped her fingers for her hoverboard. "I really thought you'd changed. But you're still the same self-centered little ugly you've always been. That's what's amazing about you, Tally - even Dr. Cable and her surgeons don't stand a chance against your ego."

Tally felt her hands begin to tremble. She had expected an argument, but not this. "Shay..."

"You're even a failure as a Special, always worrying about everything. Why can't you just be icy?"

"I always tried to do what you - "

"Well you can stop trying now." Shay reached into the storage compartment of her board and pulled out medspray, giving her bleeding arm a long squirt. Then she pulled out a few more sealed packages, tossing them into the mud at Tally's feet. "Here's a pack of smart plastic, if you have to go undercover. A couple of skintenna beacons and a satellite booster." She let out a bitter laugh, her voice still quivering with contempt. "I'll even give you one of my leftover grenades. Just in case something big gets between you and shaky-boy."

The grenade dropped to the ground with a thud, and Tally flinched.

"Shay, why are you - "

"Stop talking to me." The order silenced Tally who could only stare as Shay rolled her sneak suit down her arm and drew its hood over her face, replacing her furious expression with a mask of midnight darkness. Her voice came distorted through the mask. "I'm not waiting around any longer. Fausto's my responsibility, not that pack of bubbleheads."

Tally swallowed. "I hope he's okay."

"I'm sure you do." Shay leaped onto her board. "But I'm all done with caring what you hope or think, Tally-wa. Forever."

Tally tried to speak, but Shay's last word had come out so coldly that she couldn't.

Shay rose into the sky, her silhouette barely visible against the dark trees on the other bank. She slipped out over the river, then shot into the blackness, disappearing instantly, like something winking out of existence.

But Tally could still hear her breathing through the skintenna link. It sounded harsh and angry as it began to fade, as if Shay's teeth were still bared in hatred and disgust. Tally tried to think of one more thing to say, something that would explain why she had to do this. Staying with Zane was more important than being a Cutter, more important than any promise she'd ever made.

This decision was about who Tally Youngblood was inside, whether ugly or pretty or special...

But a moment later Shay was out of range, and Tally still hadn't said a word. She found herself alone and in hiding, waiting for the Crims to fall asleep.

INCOMPETENCE

The Crims tried to build a fire, and failed.

All they managed to do was set a few wet branches smoldering, the angry hiss so loud that Tally could hear it from her hiding place. They never got a real blaze going, and the pile was still sputtering desultorily as dawn began to break. That's when the Crims noticed the dark column of smoke rising into the lightening sky, and tried to put it out. They wound up dumping handfuls of mud on the half-alive fire.

By the time they had it under control, their city clothes looked like they'd been sleeping rough for a week.

Tally sighed, imagining Shay's chuckle as they struggled with the simplest things. At least they had realized that it was smarter to sleep during the day and travel at night.

As the runaways wrestled their way into sleeping bags, Tally allowed herself to fall into catnap mode. Specials didn't need much sleep, but she could still feel the Armory break-in and the long hike afterward in her muscles. The Crims would be bone tired after their first night in the wild, so now was probably the best time to catch up on her rest. Without Shay along to trade watches with, Tally might have to stay alert for days at a time.

She sat with her legs crossed, facing the runaway camp and setting her internal software to ping every ten minutes. But sleep didn't come easily. Her eyes burned with unshed tears from the fight with Shay. Accusations still echoed in her mind, making the world fuzzy and distant. She took slow, deep breaths, until finally her eyes fell closed...

Ping. Ten minutes already.

Tally checked the Crims, who hadn't moved, then tried to fall asleep again.

Specials were designed to sleep this way, but being roused every ten minutes still did weird things to time. As if Tally was watching a fast-motion video of the day, the sun seemed to rise quickly into the sky, the shadows shifting around her like living things. The soft sounds of the river blurred into a single droning note, and her mind drifted uneasily between worry for Zane and dejection about the fight. It seemed like no matter what happened, Shay was destined to hate her. Or maybe Shay had been right, and Tally Youngblood had a talent for betraying her friends...

When the sun was almost at its peak, Tally awakened not from the sound of a ping, but from a blinding flash hitting her eyes. She jolted upright, hands curled in fighting position.

The light was coming from the Crims' camp. As she rose, it winked out again.

Tally relaxed. It was only the runaways' solar-powered hoverboards spread out across the riverbank to recharge. As the sun moved across the sky, it had caught the reflective cells at just the right angle to shine in Tally's eyes.

Watching the boards sparkle, Tally felt uneasy. After only a few hours on board, the runaways didn't really need to recharge yet - they should be a lot more worried about staying invisible.

Shielding her eyes, Tally looked up. To any passing hovercar, the unfurled boards would glitter like a distress beacon. Didn't the Crims realize how close to the city they were? Their few hours of boarding had probably seemed like an eternity to them, but they were still practically on the doorstep of civilization.

Tally felt another a wave of shame. She had disobeyed Shay and betrayed Fausto to babysit these bubbleheads?

She opened her skintenna to the city's official channels, and instantly picked up chatter coming from a warden's car on a slow, lazy patrol along the river. The city had realized by now that last night's pranks had been diversions for yet another escape. All the obvious routes away from the city -  rivers and old rail lines - would be under scrutiny. If the wardens spotted the unfurled hoverboards, Zane's escape would come to an ignominious end, and Tally would have gone against Shay for nothing.

She wondered how to get the Crims' attention without revealing herself. She could throw a few rocks, hoping to wake them up with a convincingly random noise, but they probably didn't have a city-band radio with them. The runaways wouldn't recognize the danger they were in - they'd just go back to sleep.

Tally sighed. She was going to have to fix this herself.

Pulling her hood down, she took a few steps to the riverbank and slipped into the water. The sneak suit's scales began to undulate as she swam, mimicking the ripples around her and turning as reflective as the slow, glassy river.

Closer to the camp, the smell of extinguished fire and discarded food packs met her nostrils.

Tally took a deep breath and submerged completely, swimming underwater until she reached the riverbank.

She belly-crawled up from the water, raising her head slowly, letting the suit adjust itself to every change around her. It turned brown and soft, scales burrowing into the mud and pushing her along like a slug.

The Crims were asleep, but buzzing flies and the occasional stir of wind brought soft murmurs from them. New pretties might have lots of practice sleeping until noon, but never on hard ground. The slightest noise could bring them all awake.

Their camo-mottled sleeping bags would be invisible from the air, at least. But the unfurled boards only shone brighter as the sun climbed, eight of them crowding the riverbank. Wind tugged at the corners, which were weighted with stones and clumps of mud, making them flash like glitterbombs.

To recharge a hoverboard, you pulled it apart like a paper doll, exposing the maximum surface area to the sun. Fully unfurled, they were as thin and light as kite plastic, and a gust of wind might carry them into the trees - at least, if the Crims woke up and found their boards moved into the forest, they might believe that was what had happened.

Tally crawled to the nearest board and plucked the rocks from its corners. Rising slowly to her feet, she dragged it into the shade. After a few minutes' work, she had it wedged between two trees in a way that she hoped looked random, but was secure enough that the wind wouldn't carry it away for good.

Only seven more to go.

The work was excruciatingly slow. Tally had to consider every step she took among the sleeping bodies, and every accidental sound made her heart flutter. All the while she half-listened to the warden's car approaching on her skintenna feed.

Finally, the last of the eight hoverboards had been carefully dragged into the shade. They were tangled together, like crumpled umbrellas after a windstorm, the bright solar arrays turned facedown in the brush.

Before slipping back into the river, Tally stood for a moment regarding Zane. Asleep, he looked more like his old self; the random shakes didn't trouble him in unconsciousness. Without his thoughts traveling across his face, he looked smarter, almost special. She imagined his eyes sharpened to cruel-pretty angles, and let her mind trace lacework flash tattoos across his face. Tally smiled and turned, taking a step back toward the river...

Then she heard a sound, and froze.

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